I wrote a post on growth a while ago about how insane I think it is to believe we can grow forever—at least in terms of economic growth. I was also reading The World We Want posts by David Korten that echoed the same sentiments but that go further to point out that all the breakdowns that are appearing are perhaps the greatest creative opportunity in history. That got me thinking that while I think there are limits to economic growth, this is only true in a finite and deterministic worldview—in a paradigm of scarcity.
It is always amazing to me how easily we can forget that it is the context that determines our reality and our limits. I teach and write about that all the time, and yet have been wringing my hands in disbelief and near despair in the face of daily exhortations about the ‘sub-prime meltdown’, the shrinking polar ice caps, peak oil and the impending doom of civilization. I have even joined the chorus and can watch the resignation building in myself on an almost daily basis.
This is not to say that the earth’s and our problems are not real and potentially fatal to us as individuals, as a civilization and as a species. What it means is that we have a choice in how we relate to all of it. If we can transform our relationship to growth, then we have choices and possibilities that we don’t have if we remain addicted to our current worldview and in denial about what is going on around us.
I am trying to create what David Korten calls ‘a new story’. I imagine what economic growth could look like if it wasn’t based on exploitation of physical and human resources. I envision that it is possible to transform the marketplace in terms of what we need and want (demand) and to create from nothing (supply) what is needed and wanted. By create from nothing, I mean innovating and designing goods and services that either don’t exist today or inventing new methods that don’t exist yet.
Now immediately that brings to mind that there are physical needs for food and water and sanitation and shelter that are unlikely to appear from thin air, but these aren’t inherently scarce except when our demand for them is competing for lots of other ‘stuff’ such as automobiles, skyscrapers and most of the items for sale in most airports and shopping malls everywhere.
In my new story, we create a ‘marketplace of committed value’ where return on investment is only one of the indicators of economic performance. In his book Natural Capitalism, Paul Hawken suggests there can be other ‘bottom lines’ (social and environmental) for measuring our success. The key is getting investors to demand those results with is much fervor as they are now bludgeoning business to produce 20% annual growth. In a marketplace where consumers pay for sustainable value added—rather than instant gratification and value perceived—it would shift the consumption paradigm to seeking what is good for us individually and also good for us collectively, and ultimately shift the production paradigm for goods and services that meet this ‘new’ consumer demand.